Insect bites and stings are so common that nearly everyone experiences one at some point. For the most part, they cause only mild discomfort. Some bites and stings go unnoticed until an itchy bump forms on the skin.
Getting stung by a wasp is a completely different story.
These winged insects are sometimes mistaken for bees, but wasps have a thinner waist and less body hair compared with bees. (1) Despite their differences, one thing they do have in common is their ability to inflict a painful punishment.
The good news is that wasps aren’t always aggressive, and they typically only sting when they feel threatened. (2) If you stay out of their way, they’ll stay out of yours.
On the off chance that you have a run-in with a wasp, here’s what you need to know about wasp sting remedies and sting allergies.
What Bit Me? Spot These 12 Bug Bites
What Types of Wasps Sting?
There are roughly 20,000 species of wasps, but not all of them sting humans. (2) As with bees, only female wasps have stingers. And unlike honeybees, wasps don’t lose their stingers. This means it’s possible to be stung multiple times by the same wasp. (3)
Four common types of stinging wasps include:
1. Bald-Faced Hornet
Bald-faced hornets are black and white and about three-quarters of an inch long. (Technically they are wasps and not a type of hornet, despite the name.) They are known to be especially aggressive in protecting their distinctive roundish papery nests, which often hang from trees.
Do not confuse the bald-faced hornet with the European hornet (which is a type of hornet). The European hornet is bigger, measuring closer to 1 inch long. (1) You can identify the European hornet by its reddish-brown head and legs and yellow-and-black striped abdomen (rear end). They nest in the ground, in the hollows of trees, and in spaces inside interior walls. (1) They’re found in Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. (4)
2. Yellow Jacket
Host an outdoor barbecue and you’ll likely have a few of these unwanted visitors. Yellow jackets are sometimes confused with hornets and bees, but you can easily identify them by their black-and-yellow-striped abdomen and short legs. These wasps are extremely aggressive and sting more often than other types of wasps. (1,3)
Yellow jackets are active from the spring through late summer, and you can find them around the globe. If you live in the southeastern United States, you may see them in large numbers. (3)
3. Paper Wasp
You’ll find these wasps throughout the U.S., usually flying around structures. Paper wasps are about a half inch to 1 inch long and identified by their reddish-brown to black body and long legs that hang down when they fly. (5)
Some paper wasps have yellow rings around their abdomen, making them resemble a yellow jacket. All paper wasps are active during the spring, summer, and fall. (3,5)
4. Cicada Killer Wasp
This is one of the largest species of wasp in North America — growing up to 1½ inches — and they’re found throughout the U.S. You can distinguish these from other wasps by their mostly black abdomen with whitish markings. (1)
Cicada killer wasps feed on cicadas, another fairly large insect. They rarely sting humans, but will if they feel threatened. (6)
What Are the Most Common Symptoms of a Wasp Sting?
Wasp stings are venomous, so if one stings you, you’ll know right away. These stings cause a local reaction that can feel like sharp burning in the area of the sting. (7)
Symptoms of a wasp sting include:
- Pain and burning
Local reactions are mild, and most people don’t need medical attention for wasp stings. (8)
What Does a Wasp Sting Look Like?
What if you didn’t see what stung you? How can you distinguish a wasp sting from other bites and stings?
With a wasp sting, you’re likely to see a small puncture wound at the site of pain and burning. The wound may even have a drop of blood at its center, indicating where the stinger entered your body.
Redness and swelling from mild local reactions improve gradually over hours, whereas a larger local reaction can take up to several days to improve. (9)
Am I Having an Allergic Reaction to a Wasp Sting?
Wasp stings are painful but not usually dangerous. (8) Unless, of course, you have an insect allergy and you’re allergic to wasp venom.
In the case of insect venom allergies, symptoms often develop shortly after a bite or sting — sometimes within minutes. The severity of a reaction varies from person to person, so the venom affects some people only mildly.
Signs of a mild allergic reaction include hives (without difficulty breathing) near the site of the sting as well as on other parts of the body. Some people also experience a slight drop in blood pressure, causing light dizziness. (10)
Because not all allergic reactions are life-threatening, a mild reaction localized to the sting area can usually be treated at home, says Gene Conti, MD, an emergency medicine doctor at ECU Health North Hospital in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
When Should You Seek Emergency Medical Attention for a Wasp Sting?
“Anaphylaxis is the overwhelming response of our immune system. Instead of just a localized rash and itching, blood pressure drops, you pass out, and breathing stops, which can lead to respiratory failure and death,” warns Dr. Conti. “This can all take place in less than a minute.” (1)
If you’re allergic to wasp venom, it’s also important to note that your first exposure to the allergen may produce only a mild reaction. It’s the second and subsequent exposures where you may have an anaphylactic-like reaction to the allergen, says Conti.
Other symptoms of a severe allergic reaction to wasp venom include: (10,11)
- Swelling of the lips, mouth, or tongue
- Rapid heartbeat
- Stomach pain
Call 911 immediately if you have a severe reaction to a sting.
Wasp Sting Treatment: What Do You Do if a Wasp Stings You?
Wasps don’t lose their stingers. So if you’re stung, you don’t have to remove one from your skin.
Some basic care for a wasp sting: (11)
- Wash the area with soap and water, Conti recommends. Clean the area every day until it heals, to prevent a skin infection.
- Apply a cold compress to relieve pain and swelling. Wrap the cold pack in a towel and place it on the sting — 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. If you’re stung in the leg or arm, keep this part of your body elevated.
- Take an antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritin if you have a reaction, says Conti. Carry epinephrine (EpiPen) if you have a history of a severe allergic reaction to wasp venom. Administer immediately after a sting to avoid anaphylaxis, he adds.
- Use an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce pain.
For a moderate-to-severe allergic reaction, treatment involves stabilizing your health. This may include administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation or oxygen therapy. (11)
If you’ve had an anaphylactic reaction to wasp venom, ask your doctor about allergen-specific immunotherapy to prevent or reduce future reactions.
Also known as desensitization, this therapy involves injecting your body with larger and larger doses of wasp venom in an effort to change how your immune system responds when exposed to the allergen. (10)
You may start with weekly injections for a few months, followed by one injection about every three months as maintenance. (9)
What Is Safe to Put on a Wasp Sting?
Keep the sting covered with a bandage if you like. Wearing a bandage prevents clothing and jewelry from rubbing against the sting, which can cause further irritation and itching.
Home Remedies for Treating Wasp Stings
A few home remedies can also provide relief from a wasp sting.
Creating a meat tenderizer paste and applying it to a sting may also provide some relief because of the tenderizer’s ability to neutralize the venom, he adds. (7)
If you don’t have baking soda or meat tenderizer in the house, other concoction can be quickly mixed up.
For example, applying a small amount of apple cider vinegar to the sting (mixed 50/50 with water) helps restore your skin’s natural pH level, easing itching and irritation, says Maureen Roland, RN, managing director at Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Chandler, Arizona. (12)
“The gel has antibacterial properties as well as an anti-inflammatory effect due to the natural salicylates and inhibition of histamine formation,” she explains. (13)
How to Avoid a Wasp Sting and What to Do if You See a Wasp
Wasp stings can be painful and cause a reaction ranging from hives to breathing trouble. The good news is that many wasps only sting when they feel threatened. So if you don’t provoke them or come near their home, you’ll probably have nothing to worry about.
It’s also important to note that reactions to wasp stings can vary. Not having an allergic response to a wasp sting on your first exposure is quite common. Subsequent stings can be hazardous for your health, so treat each one carefully and be alert for the warning signs of anaphylaxis.
Keep an open eye for wasp nests around your home. If you find a nest near an entryway or an area where your children play, don’t attempt to remove or destroy it yourself. Call a pest control company to have it professionally removed.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Prevention and Control: Bees and Wasps. Illinois Department of Public Health.
- Wasps and Bees. PETA.
- Yellow Jacket. Washington NatureMapping Program.
- Hornets. National Geographic.
- Stinging Insects: Paper Wasps [PDF]. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.
- Brandenburg R, Billeisen T. Cicada Killer Wasps in Turf. NC State Extension. October 25, 2017.
- Bee or Yellow Jacket Sting. Seattle Children’s Hospital. October 22, 2022.
- Insect Sting Allergy: The Facts. Anaphylaxis Campaign.
- Insect Venom Allergies: Short-Term and Long-Term Treatment. InformedHealth.org. May 7, 2020.
- Allergic Reaction to Bites and Stings. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. January 2022.
- Insect Bites and Stings: First Aid. Mayo Clinic. March 18, 2022.
- Jones K. Get the Facts: Apple Cider Vinegar. National Eczema Association. July 15, 2021.
- Surjushe A, Vasani R, Saple DG. Aloe Vera: A Short Review. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2008.
- How to Relieve Itchy Skin. American Academy of Dermatology.
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